Before defining facilitation as a professional activity, let’s take a look at its etymological origin.
Facilitation comes from the verb “to facilitate”, which in turn comes from the Italian “facilitare”: to make easy or easier. The common Latin root of these words is the adjective “facilitis”: something that is done easily.
The Antidote software program gives the following definition of the word “facilitation”, which is much more extensive than the one given in Larousse (French equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary): (didactic) Act of facilitating (technical), All measures taken to speed up goods transport, by air and by sea (physiological), the enhancement of the response of a neuron to a stimulus following prior stimulation.
Stendhal was one of the first writers to use this term in his work entitled “Souvenirs d’égotisme” (Memoirs of an Egotist, 1832, P.99): “Mrs Pasta stayed in the same position for a long time, maybe 2 or 3 seconds. Was this a kind of facilitation, or another obstacle to overcome?”
So, if the term “facilitation” is commonly used to describe the act of making something easy or easier, we can simply conclude that we all facilitate things each and every day. After all, who doesn’t instinctively try to simplify their life or make it easier for others to perform tasks or reflect?
However, defining facilitation as a professional field – more specifically, the facilitation of organisational development – throws up a few challenges. It seems no official version has won the complete approval of the facilitator community, and even less so when it comes to lexicographers.
The IAF (International Association of Facilitators) uses the definition by Roger Schwarz: “Group facilitation is a process in which a person whose selection is acceptable to all the members of the group, who is substantively neutral, and who has no substantive decision-making authority diagnoses and intervenes to help a group improve how it identifies and solves problems and make decisions, to increase the group’s effectiveness.”
Wikipedia’s definition is remarkably simple by comparison: “Facilitation: the designing and running of successful meetings and workshops in organizational settings.”
In the only book written in French on this subject, “La facilitation des changements organisationnels” (Facilitation of Organisational Change), co-authors Jacques Bec, François Granier and Jacques Sigéry – all of whom work in research and education – give the following definition: “All activities aimed at making it easier to incorporate and manage human factors that affect organisational change management processes on a daily basis.”
This definition explains the ultimate aim of facilitation skills. However, there is a likelihood that this will be assimilated or confused with other professional activities, especially coaching or even management.
I propose we use the following specific wording for this emerging activity:
Facilitation is a discipline that covers all practices used to enable each member of a group, when faced with a common challenge, to help develop a solution that is acceptable to everyone and to implement any resultant measures.
And you could add the following phrase at the end if you want to make this definition more in line with the times: Facilitation allows you to make best use of a group’s collective intelligence based on given circumstances.
I hope this article has aided your understanding of facilitation.
 “Facilitation in business, organizational development (OD), and in consensus decision-making refers to the process of designing and running a successful meeting.”: Wikipedia (English version)